Why this strain of Ebola will be far more difficult to stop

Friday, October 19, 2018
By Paul Martin

By Lindsay Scorgie-Porter
October 19

This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) held off on declaring the latest Ebola outbreak a public health emergency of international concern — a designation that would have initiated a greater international response. This may make it far more difficult to stop the spread of this particularly deadly strain.

Ebola has flared up in Congo many times before, but never quite in these circumstances. The outbreak’s location near the eastern city of Beni, in a volatile borderland — and amid the presence of a shadowy rebel group — means that it will take more than medical expertise to prevent a much wider epidemic. In recent weeks, militants attacked Red Cross workers, and other aid groups had to suspend activities in the face of mass killings by rebels.

This latest Ebola outbreak was first reported in August. Health officials have registered 220 cases, nearly two-thirds of them proving fatal. The affected border region covers much of eastern Congo and part of western Uganda. Three factors make responding to this Ebola outbreak enormously challenging:

1. There is little trust in the government

It is not uncommon in central African border regions to find an uneasy relationship between the government and citizens. In eastern Congo this is certainly the case, as the central government in Kinshasa has long practiced a policy of neglect toward a region it tends to regard as merely peripheral.

Delivery of state services like health care and infrastructure development have been minimal. And while the government claims to provide security in the form of the national army, much of the population remains fearful of the Congolese military, which outside observers have identified as one of the country’s main abusers of human rights. As a result, citizens in the eastern part of the country have historically had to rely on themselves, while also contending with a central government that is either absent or ineffective.

hese feelings of distrust carry over to the national and international response to the Ebola outbreak — led by the Congo’s Ministry of Health and supported by the WHO and other international organizations. Since the outbreak began, local citizens have often been uncooperative and even resistant to outside assistance.

Here are some examples. There have been instances of people “actively fleeing” health workers, hiding symptoms of the virus and failing to abide by safe burial practices. In September, responders came under attack when citizens threw stones at a Red Cross vehicle transporting a deceased Ebola patient.

2. The ADF and other rebels make the region unsettled

Further compounding the difficulties responders face is the extreme insecurity that characterizes the region. Approximately 120 rebel groups operate in Congo’s eastern provinces. One in particular, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), inhabits the Ebola-affected zone.

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